Graffiti to Gallery

Andrew Schoultz, the mural artist who's making it big in the gallery by refusing to leave the street behind

Schoultz and Noble's next adventure -- undertaken during the summer of 2003 -- took them far outside the Mission, into the Third World outback of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The trip was organized as part of a cultural exchange project between San Francisco artists -- particularly those involved in the Clarion Alley Mural Project -- and Apotik Komik, a contemporary alternative arts collective based in Indonesia. Schoultz's time in Indonesia shaped his worldview -- which his art mirrors -- and prepared him for his solo show at the Bucheon Gallery the following summer.

Schoultz initially had a difficult time acclimating to his surroundings. "It was the first time that Andrew had been out of the country, and it was definitely a severe culture shock for him," Noble remembers. "It was a much less capitalist country and had totally different cultural values."

When I ask Schoultz about the experience, he agrees: "You're struck by how little the people have and how little they waste," he says. "By the end of the trip, I'd become more accustomed to that lifestyle, and when I got back to the States, I had to go through the culture shock all over again."

The 18th and Lexington project.
Paolo Vescia
The 18th and Lexington project.
Some of Schoultz's birds.
Paolo Vescia
Some of Schoultz's birds.

Though traumatic, Schoultz's trip allowed him to see the contrast between a wealthy, consumer-based society and a very poor part of Indonesia. It also allowed him to refine some of the political ideas that figure so heavily in his artwork.

When Schoultz returned in August 2003, he focused increasingly on growing as a gallery artist. He'd already done group shows at the Luggage Store -- which introduced the world to such transformative graffiti/gallery artists as Barry McGee -- and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and would soon have a collaborative show, with Noble, at L.A.'s Track 16 Gallery. Still, Schoultz hadn't hung a solo gallery show, or really tried to navigate the gray areas between gallery, mural, and graffiti art.

This changed with his solo show in June at Bucheon, a gallery in Hayes Valley.

The influence of Schoultz's trip to Indonesia is evident in one of the most striking pieces from the exhibit, titled Riverbank Elephant. In this piece, one of Schoultz's elephants stands in a doorway at the bottom of a wobbly heap of ramshackle buildings, composed in Schoultz's densely layered linework. There's a ladder nailed to the middle of one of the building's floors, but it leads nowhere and serves no apparent purpose. Although the structure has loose wood beams and uneven windows that allow rain and nature's other elements inside, the only exit is a bottom corner door, where the boxed-in elephant peers out. The building's other doorways have been bricked up.

"There's a sadness in his work," Bucheon owner and curator Sheila Cohen says. "You can get an immediate reaction that, 'Oh, this is cute.' But there's a whole lot more going on."

If many of the themes and imagery of the Bucheon show were derived from his trip to Indonesia, Schoultz also incorporated elements of his graffiti and mural background. "To me, what I do is a collaboration between street art, graffiti, and fine art. A lot of what I've done with my art is to create iconic images and use repetition, which is a trait of graffiti," Schoultz says.

Laurie Steelink, of Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles, compares Schoultz to seminal crossover graffiti artist Barry McGee, also known by his tag name, TWIST. "[Schoultz's] work contains his codex of images that he uses in the same way as a Barry McGee or a Margaret Kilgallen did, where they're reproduced again and again and build upon a theme. The tornadoes and buildings and birds are all very impressive, and it's something that you haven't seen. Just the image of the tornado speaks on multiple levels."

Schoultz has had little formal artistic training, but his work at Bucheon conveyed both compositional sophistication and raw energy. "Andrew is part of the same sensibility that has a strong relationship with punk rock and hip hop," says Yerba Buena Center for the Arts curator René de Guzman, who considers Schoultz a rising star in the San Francisco art scene. "A lot of artists like Andrew make the transition from private studio to street interventions to the gallery space. ... Symbolically, it's important to acknowledge that aesthetic development can occur at the grass-roots level. Often the best and most authentic artistic development comes from that, rather than from a formalized academic setting."

Eduardo Pineda, assistant director of education at SFMOMA, agrees: "Andrew recognizes the pristine environment of the gallery, and he's able to make that transfer of his rustic work in a way that is refined. I was really impressed with how the work looked and functioned inside the gallery. It's just as strong as it is in the streets."

In the Bucheon exhibit, Schoultz subverted one of the key elements of gallery art -- its portability -- turning the entire space into a single mural. Most of the paintings bled into one another; there were few solitary pieces. "Schoultz really utilizes the gallery's space, rather than just trying to hang paintings on a wall," Steelink notes.

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